Crimes & Punishments

Yesterday, there were two news stories on NPR that, although seemingly unrelated, got me thinking about the threads that do connect them. One story was about the South Carolina prison riot that killed seven inmates. The other was about a patient care crisis facing America’s hospitals.

Reporters who covered the riots said the Lee Correctional Institution, housing some of the state’s most violent criminals, was severely understaffed. The prison has over 1,500 inmates. Forty-four officers (I assume not all are guards) were on duty when the rioting began. These numbers underscored the general view presented on NPR that over-crowding and understaffing is the problem facing prisons across the United States. And exacerbating this problem is the fact that too little interest is being shown by legislators to oversee and fix the situation.

But listening to this discussion, it seemed to me that too much of the focus was on the shortage of guards and prison space and not enough focus was on the shocking number of prisoners in the United States presently requiring more guards and space.

According to ACLU data, “The American criminal justice system holds more than 2.3 million people.” Our incarceration numbers are much higher than any other nation on earth. A prisonpolicy.org report from 2012 notes, “The prison population grew by 700 percent from 1970 to 2005, a rate that is outpacing crime and population rates. The incarceration rates disproportionately impact men of color: 1 in every 15 African American men and 1 in every 36 Hispanic men are incarcerated in comparison to 1 in every 106 white men.”

Today it is generally accepted that the Reagan era “war on drugs” played a role in our soaring prison numbers. Tragically that new national agenda was followed soon after by the appearance in the U.S. of super-addictive crack cocaine in our cities – especially in neighborhoods of color. Then in the following decades small town America began to experience the gradual devastation of their job markets, and not by coincidence an increased use of methamphetamines in those communities.

Of course those aren’t the only reasons we now have so many more Americans in our prisons, but drugs in general, have played a big part. In a report written by Lauren Booke Eisne and Inimai Chettiar for the December 9, 2016 issue of Time Magazine, they found that “approximately 39% of the nationwide prison population (576,000 people) is behind bars with little public safety rationale. And they can be released, significantly and safely cutting our prison population.” They went on to say, “364,000 people, almost all non-violent, lower-level offenders, would be better served by alternatives to incarceration such as treatment, community service, or probation.

This approach probably wouldn’t apply to the rioters in South Carolina. They’ve been characterized by that state as their most violent criminals. However if the overall population of our prisons could be intelligently reduced this would logically result in more guards being available for an understaffed prison like Lee Correctional.

Perhaps a national dialogue about this problem will be spurred on by the South Carolina riot. If so, America’s struggles with drugs should certainly be a part of that discussion. 

This brings me to the second NPR news story I mentioned at the start of this commentary. According to NPR, hospitals across the United States are facing a critical shortage of the anesthetic Dilaudid in its liquid formulation. The vast majority of American surgeons, anesthesiologists and doctors aiding patients in pain use intravenous Dilaudid as their drug of choice. It relieves severe pain better and faster than morphine and it holds less risk of overdosing when compared to the much more powerful drug fentanyl.

However, the drug companies now producing little or no liquid Dilaudid have somehow continued to produce plenty of Dilaudid in its pill format. And surprise! The profit margin for pills is much higher than the money that can be made selling liquid Dilaudid to hospitals.

I will never forget seeing an expose’ in January about two pharmacies pills2.jpgin a West Virginia town with 2900 residents that, over a ten year period, received of 20.8 million prescription painkillers. — Wouldn’t you think that some top executives at the pharmaceutical companies shipping all those pills might have questioned the legitimacy of those shipments? – It didn’t happen.

So, here we are today with America’s prisons dangerously overcrowded with inmates, many of whom are probably serving time for non-violent drug violations. And meanwhile a handful of pharmaceutical executives are drawing big salaries and bonuses, some for cleverly increasing their profits through over-shipping pills that will fuel more addiction, and others for increasing their profit margins by steering drug formulations away from drugs desperately needed by patients in pain.

Sometimes crimes and punishments just don’t match.

Nels Howard
NTDO member since 1973